Cool reception for 'inexperienced' Patten: Attempt to head off rebellion over schools tests leaves teachers in a moderate union unconvinced. Judith Judd reports

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The Independent Online
Incredulous delegates at the conference of the moderate Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Cardiff yesterday gathered round the television to hear John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, describe their reception of him as 'cordial'.

Mr Patten was attending his first teacher union conference; his listeners said it showed. 'If you thought his reception was warm, that proves how inexperienced he is. This was a non-conciliatory speech,' Andrew Mitchell, from Sutton, Surrey, said.

Delegates stood in silence as Mr Patten entered the hall and there was muted applause when he finished. Apart from a couple of bursts of wry laughter - one when he suggested that continuous assessment could save teachers' time - they listened quietly. 'I expected a rougher ride,' Mr Patten said later.

His speech promising a review of the national curriculum and testing aimed to persuade the assembly not to vote for a ballot on a test boycott this morning. But even the association's most moderate members were unimpressed. Morag Steed, from Northumberland, said: 'I am against an exam boycott, but this speech showed how out of touch Mr Patten is with the realities teachers face every day in the classroom . . . We applauded because we are polite and professional.'

Delegates suggested that Mr Patten's performance had made a vote in favour of a ballot more likely. Mr Mitchell said: 'He deliberately avoided addressing the issue of the moment - the ill-conceived, inappropriate tests for 14-year-olds.'

If the association, the most moderate of the three big teacher unions, votes for a ballot, Mr Patten will be in trouble and thousands of 14-year- olds can expect their national curriculum tests to be disrupted. The National Association of School Masters Union of Women Teachers has already voted for a test boycott and the National Union of Teachers is likely to back action against testing at its Easter conference this weekend.

Yesterday's speech was an attempt to defuse teachers' anger about the workload imposed by a curriculum and a testing regime which they believe is too bureaucratic and complicated. Whatever the result of this morning's ballot, Mr Patten failed to convince them that his review of the national curriculum and testing would address their concerns.

The speech had been well trailed as the starting block for a fundamental overhaul of the four-year-old national curriculum which critics on both the left and right have been demanding. It was nothing of the sort.

Mr Patten spoke of streamlining testing, as he has done several times before. He spoke of a rolling review of national curriculum subjects, which he had already rehearsed. He mentioned reviews of maths, science, English and technology, which have already taken place.

His newest proposal, a look at the 10-level scale for grading children's attainment, was disclosed in the Independent on Sunday. But it is tentative. In a letter to Sir Ron Dearing, who becomes chairman of the new school curriculum and assessment authority in 10 days' time, he asked whether there were viable alternatives for some or all subjects.

Peter Smith, ATL's general secretary, warned on Tuesday that Mr Patten would need to contemplate a climbdown and spell out his curriculum review to pacify the union's members. Mr Patten did neither. He did not agree the tests were flawed. They were, he said, 'the subject of intense professional debate'. He said that the streamlining process he wanted has been going on for four years. The tests for seven-year-olds have been changed three times to make them more manageable.

The controversial English tests for 14-year-olds to be taken this summer have been in preparation for three years. The test developers were changed twice because the Government disliked their tests.

Mr Patten is trying to persuade teachers to administer this summer's tests by arguing that if they do not like them they can be changed again.

The curriculum has been altered, too. Maths and science have been cut back. This year it is the turn of English and technology. The English review, due to be published next week, involves a fundamental change in the way English is taught, but it is more not less detailed and prescriptive than the curriculum it replaces.

Mr Smith said yesterday that this piecemeal approach had failed and that it was time to look at the curriculum as a whole. In the meantime, he said, testing should be put on hold.

It is a measure of the Government's difficulties that the ATL is even debating a boycott ballot. Ministers have consistently underestimated the strength of teachers' feelings against the testing arrangements and the English tests in particular.

A host of grievances in a profession which feels it has been ignored for 14 years is fuelling the anger. Mr Smith said that the 'awful union leaders' whom Mr Patten attacked at last year's Tory party conference reflected the views of ordinary teachers. They were not militant trendies.

Yesterday Mr Patten adopted a more soothing tone but, unless the Court of Appeal overthrows the High Court decision that the testing boycott is legal, classrooms face a summer of turmoil.

(Photograph omitted)

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